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Syracuse football 2019 position preview: Running backs

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Can Syracuse repeat last year’s rushing success?

NCAA Football: Florida State at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019 Syracuse Orange football season is actually getting pretty close (we’re less than eight weeks out!). So it’s safe to dive into position previews for each group on this year’s SU roster.

Each week leading up to the season, we’re profiling one group and every player that could make an impact this fall. Last time around, we talked about Syracuse’s quarterback position and what the roster looks like beyond Tommy DeVito. This week:

Running Backs

Syracuse improved across the board last year, as you know by this point. And among the biggest inflection points for the Orange was the run game, where they jumped to 200 yards per game (from 161.5) on the year and became a far more balanced and potent offense. Some of that was due to Eric Dungey’s scrambling ability, but you can still attribute plenty to SU’s running backs, as well as the efforts of Chris Elmore. So that potentially allows for some optimism that the positive progress can continue in 2019.

That’s good, because the offensive line replaces a ton after having its best season since 2012. And combined with trading Dungey for the less mobile Tommy DeVito, there are reasons to consider a setback. At the same time, there’s arguably more depth and talent at the running back position than there has been in awhile. And with a young passer under center, they may also be relied upon more than they have been in awhile, too.

Moe Neal, Senior

In his first two years on campus, Neal was largely relegated to off tackle running and the occasional scamper around the edge while Dontae Strickland was given carries between the tackles. But in 2018, the two split time between the tackles and the lightning-quick Neal was able to break through for his best season yet: 869 yards to lead SU on an average of 5.61 yards per carry, plus five touchdowns.

This year, there’s no more Strickland, but Neal should still get a least half of the carries and will be seen as one of the offense’s leaders while trying to keep up the pace in the ground game. Neal was an impressive first down runner last year (6.21 yards per carry), and was also great in third-and-short situations too (4.21 yards). With Dungey’s carries off the books, he stands a decent chance to be the program’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Jerome Smith (2012).

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 28 Camping World Bowl - West Virginia v Syracuse Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Abdul Adams, (Redshirt) Junior

If there’s one player that could directly stand in the way of Neal’s quest for 1,000 yards, it’s Adams. After sitting out the regular season due to NCAA transfer rules, the former Oklahoma back chipped in two touchdowns to help Syracuse beat West Virginia in the Camping World Bowl. While the short yardage TDs were great, what we’re really interested in is Adams’s explosive abilities. At 214 pounds, he’s a little bigger than Neal, which could give him more work inside. But with the Sooners, he also averaged 9.2 yards per carry as a sophomore.

Expect to see him take plenty of handoffs. Adams and Neal aren’t in direct competition for an RB1 job, however. Even if one is more impressive than the other, you’ll still see plenty of both as Dino Babers likes to have fresh legs ready to go whenever possible. We also haven’t heard much about the injury that kept Abdul out of the end of spring ball, so keep an eye on whether he’s active early in fall practice.

Chris Elmore, Junior

As discussed in this week’s “Get to Know,” there are questions around whether we’ll see Elmore on the field this season following April’s leg injury. If not, the run game is poised to struggle at least a little bit. But with him, you can likely expect a lot more of the same progress we saw in 2018. Elmore’s an expert blocker, and the main reason SU was able to break holes up the middle (no matter who was carrying the ball). He’s essential to reducing wear and tear on SU’s rushers as well.

NCAA Football: Louisville at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Jarveon Howard, Sophomore

In the early stages of the season, Howard looked impressive as a bruising change-of-pace back who could serve as Syracuse’s short yardage savior. He had a combined 184 yards against Wagner, FSU and UConn, on just 23 attempts, though a goal line fumble against the Huskies did seem to spell the end of him being featured as a regular runner once ACC play was in full swing (save his 71 yards vs. Louisville). We’ll see if Adams cuts into his carries at all. Most likely, he’s your third rusher and a potential short-yardage guy (though he and Adams are the same size).

Jawhar Jordan, Freshman

It took Jordan over a year to get to campus, but he’s looked great since his arrival in January, and could challenge for some early carries given the speed he’s able to bring to the table. Dino always finds creative ways to get fast and talented players on the field no matter their year, so don’t be surprised if he does the same with Jordan.

Markenzy Pierre, (Redshirt) Sophomore

The emergence of Howard and Jordan may hurt Pierre’s chances to make an impact on offense, though despite diminished carries, he participated on special teams last season. Markenzy’s slightly bigger than the other returning scholarship backs (219), but not so much that it’s going to tip the scales given other factors. We may be seeing him primarily on special teams once again.

Garrison Johnson, Freshman

With a crowded backfield in front of him, the freshman may be redshirting this year, but that’s not due to a lack of talent. The Texas product has some size and speed that will make him a contender for feature back duty down the road. Redshirting just buys us a little more time for him to learn the offense, and also for veterans to clear out in the coming years.

Otto Zaccardo, Senior

The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman includes the walk-on in his list of physical freaks for 2019 — as good a sign as any that Zaccardo will be on the field plenty this season. We may not see much of him as a runner (he had just eight carries in garbage time last year), but he’s become a strong special teams contributor as part of SU’s impressive group in that aspect of the game.

Luke Erickson, (Redshirt) Sophomore

Luke’s a smart and athletic player, but as you can see, it’s a crowded depth chart in front of him. Should he see the field this season, it’ll be on special teams, to put his former experience as a linebacker in high school to use.

Jack Guida, (Redshirt) Sophomore

Guida played a host of different positions in high school (QB, RB, safety), and that gives him a unique perspective of the action on the field. As a walk-on at SU, that experience may be most useful on special teams and the scout team — not an insignificant contribution given how well prepared last year’s Orange squad was in that regard.

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There’s a lot to like above when it comes to depth and talent. Adams and Neal should be a better 1-2 punch at running back than what we saw last year between Neal and Strickland (no offense to Dontae), and having Howard AND Jordan as the primary backs to jump in as well should lead to a well-rested group that can test defenses for a full 60 minutes of game time.

That said, Elmore’s potential absence looms large, as do changes on the offensive line. We’ll get to the latter in a couple weeks, but Syracuse does replace three of five starters. Even though experience steps in there, it could be a few weeks before things gel. That’s tough to manage in any season. It’s especially so when two of the first three opponents are Maryland and Clemson. Still, veteran rushers could help with the growing pains. They’ll likely need to if Syracuse wants to get off to a strong start this year.